Whisker Fatigue in Cats

Last Updated on September 28, 2021 by Julia Wilson

What is whisker fatigue?

Also known as whisker stress, whisker fatigue is reported to be the stress cats feel when its whiskers touch the sides of narrow food and water dishes. Whiskers are specialised hairs with a rich nerve supply located on either side of the muzzle (sinus hairs or mystacial whiskers), cheeks,  above the eyelids, and the wrists of the foreleg.

Symptoms of whisker fatigue reportedly include experience a refusal to eat, pawing at food to try and remove it from the bowl, dropping food, only eating from the centre of the bowl, spending less time eating, food aggression, pacing in front of the food bowl. Oral pain can also produce similar symptoms, and any changes should be investigated by a veterinarian.

What is the function of whiskers?

The whiskers are rich in nerve endings and help the cat navigate his or her environment, even in low light.

  • Helps the cat determine if a narrow passageway is large enough for the cat to fit through.
  • As the cat moves in the darkness, he uses his whiskers to find his way around objects. The whiskers can detect slight changes in the air current around the object and the cat can walk around the object.
  • Whiskers are an extremely valuable tool for the hunting cat, especially at night acting as a guidance system. They can provide information on the outline of the prey, which enables the cat to bite the prey in exactly the right spot to kill it instantly. A cat with damaged whiskers will often aim the bite in the wrong area, therefore not killing the prey.
  • Provide information about the prey in the cat’s mouth and if it is still alive.

Origins of whisker fatigue

It’s hard to pin down the origin of whisker fatigue. PetMD and Litter-Robot published articles in 2016 and The New York Times published an article in May 2017 titled Feline Food Issues? ‘Whisker Fatigue’ May Be to Blame. Both Litter-Robot and the New York Times included links to bowls that reportedly solve the issue of whisker fatigue.

Is whisker fatigue real?

Boston Magazine published a rebuke on the 7th June 2017 to the New York Times article titled Did the New York Times Publish Fake News About Cats? which claims a search of Journal of the American Veterinarian Association, the American Journal of Veterinary Research, and the International Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery turned up nothing. A recent study dated 15th June 2020, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery tested 38 domestic cats to look for evidence of whisker fatigue. Owners withheld food for 12 hours, and fed the cats in their usual food bowl, and filmed the cats eating. The following week, they fed their cats from the whisker friendly dish after withholding food for 12 hours. Researchers found no difference between eating behaviour between the dishes, nor did they find that eating from the whisker-friendly dish increased the amount of time spent eating.

Some cats may dislike the sensation of their whiskers touching the sides of their food and water dishes but many don’t seem to care. If you do suspect your cat may be experiencing issues with narrow food or water bowls, by all means, experiment. You don’t need to purchase a ‘whisker fatigue‘ cat bowl to do so. A plate or wide/shallow food bowl may resolve issues without the need to buy a specially designed bowl.

It feels like a made-up phenomenon that the Internet has run with, as the Internet likes to do.

Choosing the right food and water bowls

There’s so much choice when it comes to food and water bowls. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to look for a wide bowl for your cat to eat from, although not all cats will care, as long as there’s food in them.

Ceramic and stainless steel bowls are preferable to plastic as they are dishwasher safe and plastic bowls have been implicated in feline acne and can harbour bacteria. We use a large, ceramic dog bowl for water as its weight makes it difficult to knock over and ceramic keeps water cooler than metal or plastic.

Older cats may benefit from a bowl that is slightly elevated as arthritis can restrict your cat’s movement.

Feature image David Saddler, Flickr

Reference

Slovak, J. E., & Foster, T. E. (2020). Evaluation of whisker stress in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X20930190.